A visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott was always anamusing episode to the young man. The house in itselfwas already an historic document, though not, of course,as venerable as certain other old family houses inUniversity Place and lower Fifth Avenue. Those were ofthe purest 1830, with a grim harmony of cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-archedfire-places with black marble mantels, and immenseglazed book-cases of mahogany; whereas old Mrs.Mingott, who had built her house later, had bodily castout the massive furniture of her prime, and mingledwith the Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery ofthe Second Empire. It was her habit to sit in a windowof her sitting-room on the ground floor, as if watchingcalmly for life and fashion to flow northward to hersolitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have themcome, for her patience was equalled by her confidence.She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries,the one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in raggedgardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyedthe scene, would vanish before the advance of residencesas stately as her own--perhaps (for she was animpartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble-stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumpedwould be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as peoplereported having seen in Paris. Meanwhile, as every oneshe cared to see came to HER (and she could fill herrooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding asingle item to the menu of her suppers), she did notsuffer from her geographic isolation.
The immense accretion of flesh which had descendedon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomedcity had changed her from a plump active little womanwith a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something asvast and august as a natural phenomenon. She hadaccepted this submergence as philosophically as all herother trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewardedby presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkledexpanse of firm pink and white flesh, in thecentre of which the traces of a small face survived as ifawaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins leddown to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiledin snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniatureportrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below,wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edgesof a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poisedlike gulls on the surface of the billows.
The burden of Mrs. Manson Mingott's flesh hadlong since made it impossible for her to go up anddown stairs, and with characteristic independence shehad made her reception rooms upstairs and establishedherself (in flagrant violation of all the New Yorkproprieties) on the ground floor of her house; so that, asyou sat in her sitting-room window with her, you caught(through a door that was always open, and a looped-back yellow damask portiere) the unexpected vista of abedroom with a huge low bed upholstered like a sofa,and a toilet-table with frivolous lace flounces and agilt-framed mirror.
Her visitors were startled and fascinated by theforeignness of this arrangement, which recalled scenes inFrench fiction, and architectural incentives to immoralitysuch as the simple American had never dreamed of.That was how women with lovers lived in the wickedold societies, in apartments with all the rooms on onefloor, and all the indecent propinquities that theirnovels described. It amused Newland Archer (who hadsecretly situated the love-scenes of "Monsieur deCamors" in Mrs. Mingott's bedroom) to picture herblameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but hesaid to himself, with considerable admiration, that if alover had been what she wanted, the intrepid womanwould have had him too.
To the general relief the Countess Olenska was notpresent in her grandmother's drawing-room during thevisit of the betrothed couple. Mrs. Mingott said shehad gone out; which, on a day of such glaring sunlight,and at the "shopping hour," seemed in itself an indelicatething for a compromised woman to do. But at anyrate it spared them the embarrassment of her presence,and the faint shadow that her unhappy past mightseem to shed on their radiant future. The visit went offsuccessfully, as was to have been expected. Old Mrs.Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which,being long foreseen by watchful relatives, had beencarefully passed upon in family council; and theengagement ring, a large thick sapphire set in invisibleclaws, met with her unqualified admiration.
"It's the new setting: of course it shows the stonebeautifully, but it looks a little bare to old-fashionedeyes," Mrs. Welland had explained, with a conciliatoryside-glance at her future son-in-law.
"Old-fashioned eyes? I hope you don't mean mine,my dear? I like all the novelties," said the ancestress,lifting the stone to her small bright orbs, which noglasses had ever disfigured. "Very handsome," she added,returning the jewel; "very liberal. In my time a cameoset in pearls was thought sufficient. But it's the handthat sets off the ring, isn't it, my dear Mr. Archer?"and she waved one of her tiny hands, with small pointednails and rolls of aged fat encircling the wrist like ivorybracelets. "Mine was modelled in Rome by the greatFerrigiani. You should have May's done: no doubt he'llhave it done, my child. Her hand is large--it's thesemodern sports that spread the joints--but the skin iswhite.--And when's the wedding to be?" she broke off,fixing her eyes on Archer's face.
"Oh--" Mrs. Welland murmured, while the youngman, smiling at his betrothed, replied: "As soon as everit can, if only you'll back me up, Mrs. Mingott."
"We must give them time to get to know each othera little better, mamma," Mrs. Welland interposed, withthe proper affectation of reluctance; to which theancestress rejoined: "Know each other? Fiddlesticks!Everybody in New York has always known everybody.Let the young man have his way, my dear; don't waittill the bubble's off the wine. Marry them before Lent;I may catch pneumonia any winter now, and I want togive the wedding-breakfast."
These successive statements were received with theproper expressions of amusement, incredulity and gratitude;and the visit was breaking up in a vein of mildpleasantry when the door opened to admit the CountessOlenska, who entered in bonnet and mantle followedby the unexpected figure of Julius Beaufort.
There was a cousinly murmur of pleasure betweenthe ladies, and Mrs. Mingott held out Ferrigiani's modelto the banker. "Ha! Beaufort, this is a rare favour!"(She had an odd foreign way of addressing men bytheir surnames.)
"Thanks. I wish it might happen oftener," said thevisitor in his easy arrogant way. "I'm generally so tieddown; but I met the Countess Ellen in Madison Square,and she was good enough to let me walk home withher."
"Ah--I hope the house will be gayer, now thatEllen's here!" cried Mrs. Mingott with a gloriouseffrontery. "Sit down--sit down, Beaufort: push up the yellowarmchair; now I've got you I want a good gossip. Ihear your ball was magnificent; and I understand youinvited Mrs. Lemuel Struthers? Well--I've a curiosityto see the woman myself."
She had forgotten her relatives, who were driftingout into the hall under Ellen Olenska's guidance. OldMrs. Mingott had always professed a great admirationfor Julius Beaufort, and there was a kind of kinship intheir cool domineering way and their short-cuts throughthe conventions. Now she was eagerly curious to knowwhat had decided the Beauforts to invite (for the firsttime) Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, the widow of Struthers'sShoe-polish, who had returned the previous year froma long initiatory sojourn in Europe to lay siege to thetight little citadel of New York. "Of course if you andRegina invite her the thing is settled. Well, we neednew blood and new money--and I hear she's still verygood-looking," the carnivorous old lady declared.
In the hall, while Mrs. Welland and May drew ontheir furs, Archer saw that the Countess Olenska waslooking at him with a faintly questioning smile.
"Of course you know already--about May and me,"he said, answering her look with a shy laugh. "Shescolded me for not giving you the news last night at theOpera: I had her orders to tell you that we wereengaged--but I couldn't, in that crowd."
The smile passed from Countess Olenska's eyes toher lips: she looked younger, more like the bold brownEllen Mingott of his boyhood. "Of course I know; yes.And I'm so glad. But one doesn't tell such things first ina crowd." The ladies were on the threshold and sheheld out her hand.
"Good-bye; come and see me some day," she said,still looking at Archer.
In the carriage, on the way down Fifth Avenue, theytalked pointedly of Mrs. Mingott, of her age, her spirit,and all her wonderful attributes. No one alluded toEllen Olenska; but Archer knew that Mrs. Wellandwas thinking: "It's a mistake for Ellen to be seen, thevery day after her arrival, parading up Fifth Avenue atthe crowded hour with Julius Beaufort--" and the youngman himself mentally added: "And she ought to knowthat a man who's just engaged doesn't spend his timecalling on married women. But I daresay in the setshe's lived in they do--they never do anything else."And, in spite of the cosmopolitan views on which heprided himself, he thanked heaven that he was a NewYorker, and about to ally himself with one of his ownkind.